How homely was Anne Hathaway? Griselda Heppel tries to untangle fact from fiction

Some years ago, a friend defended a film version of Mansfield Park that portrayed sexual abuse within Fanny Price’s birth family by saying, ‘Oh come on, don’t think that kind of thing didn’t go on in the nineteenth century just as much as today.’ It didn’t matter that the film showed something that never appeared in the book; according to my friend, if Jane Austen could have written it in, she would have done, and that was good enough for her.

Jane Austen; gagged by 19th C taboos
While this made no sense at all to me, what I found shocking was that this person was by profession a historian; someone who deals in fact, not fiction. Yet here she was, happy to discount the integrity of a classic novel because it didn’t fit her historical view. Perhaps that was her point: Mansfield Park is fiction, not history, so it really doesn’t matter what you do with it. For her, ‘would have,’ in Jane Austen’s case, glided easily into ‘did’.

It is difficult for historians. Novelists can make up anything they like, but where evidence is missing, historians have to piece together what clues they have to build a credible picture. For no one is this truer than William Shakespeare, whose life I’m researching at the moment for a book idea (what else?) Between his birth in 1564 and his growing fame as a playwright and poet in 1590's London, only a few certain dates stand out, among which are his marriage, in 1582, to Anne Hathaway, and the baptism of his children in 1583 and 1585. It’s only fair that biographers should follow any lead that might account for his ‘lost’ years, including one that has him employed as schoolmaster in a leading Catholic recusant family in Lancashire; or the legend that a spot of deer-poaching caused him to fly Stratford to escape the wrath of landowner Sir Thomas Lucy.
Will Shakespeare: no oil painting
But reading Anthony Holden’s biography of Shakespeare (1999) has brought the Mansfield Park conversation straight back to me. Not because of any suggestion of abusive family relationships here (phew), but because of Holden’s attitude towards his material. While he builds a good case for the 15 year-old Shakespeare’s being employed as tutor in the Hoghton family, he can’t prove it; yet after a few pages, ‘would have’ and ‘highly likely’ melt imperceptibly into ‘Shakespeare had clearly impressed his first employer.’ Guesses that begin ‘probably’ are asserted as facts a few pages later, while legends such as the deer-poaching one are discarded in one place and upheld in another. Lacking other evidence, Holden falls into the trap of taking clues from the works: Shakespeare shows knowledge of horses, so he must have earned his keep as an ostler; he writes tellingly about ‘the green-eyed monster’, therefore he, like Othello, must have suffered terrible jealousy. All of which shows a blithe misunderstanding of how the creative mind works. By this token, Lady Macbeth’s

                           I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me

arises from direct personal experience. Er….

Ostler and Horse by George Morland

Worst of all – and Holden isn’t alone here – comes the treatment of poor Anne Hathaway. We know nothing about her looks or her character, but the simple fact that she’d reached the advanced old age of 26 when 18 year-old Shakespeare impregnated her has branded her ‘on the shelf’, a desperate, ‘homely’ woman who may have set out deliberately to trap a young man into marriage.

'Homely': Anne Hathaway
Homely. Ye gods. Why is a 26 year-old woman automatically homely, while an 18 year-old boy isn’t spotty, sweaty and frankly, not much of an oil painting himself? Anne can’t have been a looker, runs the opinion among many biographers, or Shakespeare would have loved her too much to leave Stratford and live all those years in London. So what happened? There must have been attraction, at least to begin with, and the arrival of two more children some years later doesn’t speak of total aversion to this much, much older woman. And where else could an ambitious young actor and playwright earn a living if not in London? Might there not be more to the situation than allowed for here?

Untangling fact from fiction in this biography, trying to work out what is certain and what conjecture in Holden's impressively rounded portrait of his subject, while dealing with the somewhat dated attitude to women displayed above, I have to keep reminding myself that I am a historical fiction writer reading the work of a historian.

Not the other way round.
Funny, that. Maybe the two disciplines are not so far apart after all.

Find out more about Griselda Heppel here:

and her children's books:

Ante's Inferno 


The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst


Susan Price said…
Excellent points, Griselda. Whenever I've read biographies, I've been infuriated by the way 'might' and 'possibly' quickly becomes 'did' and 'was.' You find it in TV documentaries too. Some completely unproveable theory about, say Stonehenge' goes from 'it's possible that' to 'they did' in a breath.

Oh and Shakespeare! Who knows how often Bill travelled back to Stratford, or Anne went to stay with him? Travel was hard but not impossible. We know nothing about their marriage - no diaries, no letters. All we have is some legal documents. It's like trying to reconstruct a modern marriage where one partner travels a lot, from a few grocery bills.

I agree with you about your friend and Jane Austen too. Yes, child abuse undoubtedly existed in her day as in ours. But there are novels written today which aren't about child-abuse. It is, even today, possible to live a life in which child abuse doesn't form a part. Jane Austen wrote a novel like that in her day. So how is crowbarring child abuse into it justified?
Sandra Horn said…
Oh yes, Griselda! Historical fiction as tabloid newspaperspeak - gets my goat every time!
Jan Needle said…
On the point of 'travel was hard but not impossible' - I often wonder why no one (that I can recall) ever moans on and on about getting from A to B in times gone by. Maybe it just was as it was. I can't remember feeling hard done by when it took me thirteen hours to get from Portsmouth to Manchester by coach as a teenager, but I now get more and more hate-filled over taking three hours, including check in times, to get to Germany. That's why I love writing historical fiction; which is possibly as viable as historical 'fact.' Why not conjecture? Who's to say for certain Marlowe wasn't Shakespeare, and Fagin wasn't a paedophile?
Bill Kirton said…
Great post, Griselda. I share your surprise at your historian friend's cavalier attitude to the integrity of fictional works.

As for what Shakespeare got up to, I like the image Don Marquis paints of him in the ancient but still highly entertaining 'Archy and Mehitabel', where a parrot claims to carry the transmigrated soul of another parrot who lived in the Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap. The latter swears that Skakespeare resented his agent's insistence that he keep on writing (commercial) plays because all he really wanted to do was concentrate on his sonnets.
I don't think some people can cope with the fact that we know very little about aspects of history and never will (until we invent time travel and go back and have a look for ourselves - and even then we certainly wouldn't find out the whole story).
So we know hardly anything about Shakespeare's life or about King Arthur (pure legend or based on something real?) and so people would prefer to hear fictitious tales about either of these than nothing.
I'd better not start to comment on the Jane Austen thing or I will be here all day...
Anonymous said…
Thank you all for these super and supportive comments - I'm glad I'm not alone in this! I'm all for trying to fill in the gaps in history or biography, using the evidence we have to make a pretty good guess at what's missing, as long as the line between fact and imagination is clearly drawn. That's the great advantage of writing fiction, as Jan says - we are ALLOWED to make things up.

As opposed to TV dramatisations of history, which look so well done that viewers will accept them, even unconsciously, as accurate versions of events, rather than artful rehashing to make a good story. I'm thinking of Victoria (good first series, not so much the second) and the Crown (which I'm really enjoying, though cross at its inventing a fictional person to kill off, just to make Churchill look out of touch and heartless grr).

And Bill, I knew I should read 'Archy and Mehitabel' - now I really must! I love this picture of Shakespeare railing against all these commercial pressures when he just wants to be a poet.
Enid Richemont said…
A thought-provoking post - really enjoyed reading it.
Umberto Tosi said…
You're so right. Historians can slip sideways into fiction. That wouldn't be bad if it's labeled as such - historical fiction, not history. Better for a novelist to violate history than the content of another author's work (as in the Jane Austen example you cite.) Heaven knows Shakespeare historical plays distort history according to the prejudices of his time and place. By dint of assiduous research, I did my best to make my own historical Shakespeare-based novel, Ophelia Rising, stick to the records, even when fictionalizing some of its period's real people. Good luck with your work in progress! Anne Hathaway makes for a fascinating character - historically or in fiction. The fact that she was eight years Shakespeare's senior indicates more not less attractiveness, both physical and, more importantly, mentally and in personality. She probably (that word again) influence the Bard in more ways than we can imagine.
Ann Turnbull said…
Am I the only one here watching Upstart Crow on Monday nights? In this series Anne is both homely and attractive. And Shakespeare whizzes back and forth between London and Stratford all the time, moaning when he gets home about delays, bad weather, bolshy drivers and the equivalent of 'leaves on the line'. It's daft but brilliant.
Dennis Hamley said…
I tried to write a comment very late last night on my tablet but just as I was finishing, it suddenly disappeared from view and refused to be found again. How I hate virtual keyboards. But now, in the cold light of day, I'm sitting at my strong and stable PC and trying again.

Griselda, what a lovely post. I have to say I take an even more censorious view of your historian friend's observation. It misunderstands both history and the novel and ends up wretchedly meaningless. I agree that Anne Hathway's treatment by subsequent writers is dreadful. Yes, the Hoghton episode is tempting to accept as fact, but it depends on WS's family being secret Catholics. I did once believe this, after hearing many years ago a lecture by AL Rowse which sought to prove it conclusively. His reasoning, I remember, depended in particular forms of words in wills. Looking back over the years, I now believe I was more dazzled by his rhetoric than convinced by his argument, but there you go. But it can lead to the 'biography by hearsay' tha Anthony Holden, whose book I have not read, seems to have written. Interesting that you're writing a book about WS. Many years ago (in 2000 actually) I wrote a 'biography' for kids of WS in Miles Kelly's 'Spilling the beans on ...' series. It gave me a chance to fulfil an idea I'd previously put to Scholastic as a sort of spin-off from 'Horrible Histories, a proposal which Scholastic sadly didn't think much of. My main source was Park Honan's 'Shakespeare, A Life' (OUP 1998), which I found objective, able to weigh evidence sensibly and manage to dispense with a lot of the 'highly likelies' merging so easily into fact. However, good though it was, it couldn't rival Stephen Greenblatt's 'Will in the World' (Cape 2004), which came out after I'd written 'Spilling the Beans'. Reading it was a true experience! I did not mean my little book to be a 'spoof' - though I tried to be funny, I intended it as a serious teaching aid. After WS, I did Buffalo Bill and Charles Darwin - and then rewrote somebody-else's Boudicca. I don't suppose Buffalo Bill featured much in the likely Stage 2 history syllabus but WS and Darwin certainly did. Sadly, I've lost an email from a girl reading English at Toronto University telling my that my little Spilling the Beans had taught her more about WS than three terms of lectures! But writing it taught me a lot about problems in following the lives of shadowy figures and I recognised everything you wrote instantly. If you like, I'll lend you a copy (I only have two and they seem like hen's teeth now). Though I mention it, I fear I rather gloss over the Hoghton Hall!

Ann, yes, Upstart Crow is a delight. And the second series is so much better than the first
Dennis Hamley said…
Don't know how this got here. There's always something!
Anonymous said…
Catching up belatedly - thank you Enid, Umberto, Ann and Dennis for adding to the discussion and helpful pointers to other writers on Shakespeare. I'll follow up these suggestions - I particularly like the sound of your Spill the Beans book, Dennis! I do find the 'closet RC' theory on Shakespeare fascinating and not impossible - as long as one remembers it is just a possibility.
I agree that Upstart Crow which began really terribly has improved, almost to the point of being witty (if that's not damning it with faint praise, sorry)... but did anyone notice the real howler in the Catholic episode, showing the Catholic recusant giving mass in bread AND wine? One of the biggest principles of the Reformation appeared to have passed David Mitchell by completely.

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